Doug O'Neill earns respect, even if some won't give it to him

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Doug also knew about Armando's affection for Lava Man, so when the horse won, O'Neill held up a picture of Armando so Armando would be a part of the winner's circle photo.

"He's the only one from the track to visit my brother," says Ralph, "and he did so for six years. When my brother died last year he was the only one from the track to attend the funeral."

Doug says he had great affection for Armando, but doesn't say much more. It's not unusual. He keeps a lot to himself.

He struggles to talk about his brother Dan, who died 14 years ago. Doug is with his brother when a doctor says Dan should go home and get his affairs in order because he has six months to live.

"That's not what you want to hear," says Doug, as if hearing it again. "When I feel as if I've been battered, it's a trip to Disneyland compared to what was going on with Dan.''

Doug later loses his father to a heart attack, his brother Dennis beats cancer, and then when Doug climbs atop the horse racing world, there's widespread suspicion he cheated to get there.

"Maybe some of the things said aren't fair, but then losing my dad and my brother wasn't fair," he says. "Hey, I blame my parents. They named me Doug, which rhymes with drug. They could have named me Gene, you know like Clean Gene."

It's like a break in the weather, O'Neill loosening up after a 90-minute lunch that has the depressing weekday feel of a race track.

"I'm better, believe me," he says. "On a daily basis I'm better to be around. If you say I'm more guarded, I think I'm more guarded with my horses and that's good.

"I think I'm better off for everything that has happened. More mature. And no matter what's been said, it was such a thrill sharing the fun we had as a team in preparing I'll Have Another to run."

It's early, he says, but he has three possibilities for next year's Derby. And now, beyond winning, he wants to do whatever he can to promote the sport.

"I had this great mentor in Santa Monica College professor Arthur Verge, who was always telling me, 'See the good in everything.'

"I thought him nuts for years. But you know what, it's the way to live."

t.j.simers@latimes.com twitter.com/LATimesTJSimers

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